Women at Sea pp 183-201 | Cite as

Colonizing the Self

Gender, Politics, and Race in the Countess of Merlin’s La Havane
  • Claire Emilie Martin


Nineteenth-century autobiographical narratives have given us a curious perspective into the early manifestations of Latin American writing as well as into Latin America’s emergence from colonial status to nationhood. Sylvia Molloy, in At Face Value, maintains that the autobiographical works of these new nations became a form of historical account, a personalized insertion of the authorial I/(eye) witness in the historical process. Thus, the personal, private history of the individual functions metonymically within the national discourse.2 Travel narratives stemming from the autobiographical impulse of constructing the self through the travel metaphor confront us with a unique perspective into a privileged site of confluence where the individual voice acts (however reluctantly) as a vessel for a dominant ideology.


Native Land Slave Trade Spanish Readership Colonial Status Spanish Coloni 
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  1. 2.
    Sylvia Molloy, At Face Value. Autobiographical Writing in Spanish America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 82–83. Molloy observes that “la petite histoire,” that is, the personal narrative of childhood and family life, is relegated during this period to the margins of the autobiographical discourse. The first autobiographical works of Mercedes de Santa Cruz y Montalvo illustrate the inclusion of the self into the history of the island in order to weave a national/personal identity that will evolve throughout her works.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 3.
    Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, Condesa de Merlín, La Havane (Paris: Librairie d’Amyot, 1844). Translated into Spanish as Viaje a La Habana (La Habana: Editorial de Arte y Literatura, 1974). All English translations are mine. Page references are to the 1974 Spanish edition and appear in parentheses in the text. It has been noted by several critics (Salvador Bueno, Domingo Figarola Caneda) that the financial gains derived from the publication of these volumes and their possible translations were the principal reason for their existence. In her private correspondence with her lover, Philarète Chasles, Merlin bitterly complains about her financial woes. However, to reduce the Countess’ production of literary works to a mercenary cause would be to overlook the early attraction that literature and the world of ideas held in Merlin’s life.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    For an interesting study on the issues of travel, gender, and imperialism, see Alison Blunt’s treatment of the English nineteenth-century traveler Mary Kingsley, Travel, Gender, and Imperialism: Mary Kingsley and West Africa (New York: The Guilford Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Adriana Méndez Rodenas has lucidly written about the impulse toward “Cubanness” in Merlin in “Voyage to La Havane: The Countess of Merlin’s Preview of National Identity.” Cuban Studies 16 (1986): 71–99; and “A Journey to the (Literary) Source: The Invention of Origins in Merlin’s Viaje a La Habana.” New Literary History 21:3 (Spring 1990): 707–731.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Merlin’s works were translated into Spanish or English shortly after their publication in French. Mes douze premières années was translated by Agustín de Palma in 1838; her Les loisirs d’une femme du monde was translated into English as Memoirs of Madame Malibran. The Countess herself was in the process of translating La Havane into English and considering a German version according to her correspondence with her lover and collaborator Philarète Chasles. Domingo Figarola-Caneda, in his volume dedicated to the Countess, La condesa de Merlín (Paris: Editions Excelsior, 1928), lists the translations and editions of Merlin’s works he consulted in the libraries of Madrid, Paris, Brussels, London, Milan, and Berlin. Salvador Bueno corrects some of Figarola Caneda’s errors in “Una escritora habanera de expresión francesa.” In De Merlín a Carpentier (La Habana: Union de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba, 1977).Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    See Robert Paquette’s study on the slave uprising known as “La conspiración de la escalera”: Sugar is Made with Blood: The Conspiracy of La Escalera and the Conflict Between Empires over Slavery in Cuba (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes. Travel, Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992). Subsequent references will appear in parentheses in the text.Google Scholar
  8. 13.
    Georges Van Den Abbeele, Travel as Metaphor: From Montaigne to Rousseau (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1992), xxvi.Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    Adriana Méndez Rodenas, in chapter 3 of Gender and Nationalism in Colonial Cuba: The Travels of Santa Cruz y Montalvo, Condesa de Merlin (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998) discusses the trope of discovery in Merlin’s narrative.Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    Included in Slaves, Sugar & Colonial Society. Travel Accounts of Cuba, 1801–1899. Edited by Louis A. Pérez (Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 1992), 2.Google Scholar
  11. 22.
    All the quotations of Letter XXV to George Sand are taken from my translation of the text that appears in Rereading the Spanish American Essay: Translations of 19th and 20th Century Women’s Essays. Edited by Doris Meyer (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995), 9–22.Google Scholar
  12. 24.
    See Writing, Women and Space: Colonial and Postcolonial Geographies. Edited by Alison Blunt and Gillian Rose (New York: The Guilford Press, 1994), 30.Google Scholar
  13. 25.
    Correspondencia Intima de la Condesa de Merlín. Edited by Domingo Figarola-Caneda. Translated by Boris Bureba (Madrid, Paris: n.p., 1928), 54–55.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and Ivette Romero-Cesareo 2001

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  • Claire Emilie Martin

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